Seneca Avenue in Ridgewood is home to a massively-diverse group of business owners. Within about four blocks, at least ten different languages are spoken. But as the neighborhood faces rapid growth and gentrification, some of those owners wonder about the future of Ridgewood. Will there still be room in the changing neighborhood for immigrant businesses?
We talked with four business owners and managers who have shops along Seneca Avenue to track their history and to find out how — if at all — they’re feeling the change and what they’d like to see happen in the future.
How did you end up on this block in Ridgewood?
Shaly Algamal from Yemen, Manager at Ridgewood’s Finest Deli Inc.
“I’m from Yemen. I’ve been here for 17 years, I guess. I’ve worked at this store for the last 10 years. I used to work on Wall St. My cousin has a bodega over there. And then my brother, he bought this one, and I came to work for him. I used to work in Ridgewood before Manhattan.”
Felix Rodriguez from Puerto Rico, Owner at Felix Rodriguez Realty
“I came to the U.S. in 1951. I lived in Manhattan until I was 18 or 19-years-old. When I got married, I came to Williamsburg, and then after that, a few years later, I came to Ridgewood. I’ve been here for 20 years. I started this business in 1988. It was different neighborhood than today. It was a working class neighborhood.”
Eugene Domatov and Bahodir Yaruubjanov from Uzbekistan, Manager at Seneca Ave. Liquor
“I came over in 1994. Originally we went to Kentucky, and then from there in 2006 I moved to New York. In 2007 we opened this. We found this place just through friends and family.”
Bikash Khrel from Nepal, General Manager of Nepalese Indian Restaurant
“My family has been living in Ridgewood since ‘03. [My father] ended up in Ridgewood because there were a few families of Nepalese people in the neighborhood at that time — four or five. They said, ‘Oh, this neighborhood is pretty good, close enough to Manhattan.’ The same prospect that we have with the whole gentrification right now. ‘Close enough to Manhattan!’ We joined them.”
What are the challenges you face?
Shalay: To deal with people that, you know … sometimes I can’t say bad things. To deal with bad people. Some people, they give you a hard time.
Felix: The most difficult thing is telling people, “I’m sorry, I don’t have an apartment you can afford.” It breaks my heart to do that. When I came here, you could get an apartment for $400. A big apartment. Today, that same apartment is $3,000. Working-class families cannot afford that. You know how many calls I get from the city of New York? From all kinds of shelters looking for vacancies, one-bedrooms, studios, whatever size? I gotta tell them no. The cheapest apartment I have is $2,300. Very hard for people to pay that and maintain their families. So it does break my heart.
I think I’ve kind of had it because I’m spinning my wheels here. I can’t help anybody anymore. You know, it’s not like in the beginning that you could find places for people. Today, it’s not for the people that live in the neighborhood. You have to get outsiders. So it really does break my heart, and I’m thinking of retiring. It’s pushing me that way.
EUGENE: The hours and dealing with the competition. In particular, in this neighborhood, it’s saturated with stores, so you have to always be on top. That’s pretty difficult.
Bikash: What I speak about is the environment we have in New York today. It isn’t the same anymore for immigrant families. There is no way somebody could save up a few thousand dollars and open up a little business anymore.
Did you find starting a business and finding work here to be difficult?
Felix: No, it was relatively easy. Didn’t have all the headaches and nightmares that you have to have with the city of New York today. Everything was cheaper. Everything in general was cheaper.
Eugene: Yes. But when we started out we kept an ear to what the neighborhood wanted. And I think they appreciate that. We meet the customers with a smile. Their happiness is our happiness, you know? I like being a business owner in Ridgewood. There are no problems. There’s a lot of different types of people, and it’s hard to deal with sometimes. But other than that, not really. Diversity is a beautiful thing.
Bikash: The environment in that time was a little easier than today. My dad saved up a little bit and the pool of the Nepali community is very small. So it was like, let’s borrow something, let’s make something happen. People will come together. That’s a blessing about the Nepalese community. In Ridgewood at least, we are very close. At times, I almost hate it because everybody’s in everybody’s business. Everybody knows what’s happening to everybody. But anytime anything happened, people always came together.
What are your biggest concerns today?
Felix: I turn away about 80 percent of people who call me. It’s very, very bad. I’ve been a Section 8 [affordable housing] broker for more than 25 years. I’ve been here 30 [years], and I do a lot of Section 8 work — or, I used to. Today, I haven’t done a Section 8 rental in about two years. The rents that they pay aren’t sufficient to meet today’s market. It makes it very hard. People call me every day. At least 10, 15, 20 calls looking for an apartment. When I tell them what I have, they say, “Oh, I can’t afford that. I’m on a city program…” So when the market is looking for $2,300, and the city only pays $1,600, you can’t put it together. But meanwhile, the city will pay $3,000 a month for a room in a hotel. Which really doesn’t make sense. Why don’t they just pay $2,000 and let people get an apartment? Won’t do it. I don’t know why.
Eugene: I wish the train situation would be resolved faster then it’s taking. Because it’s hard on everybody. The businesses and the people. I’m looking at it from a biased standpoint because I don’t really take the train, but I do make money off the train. My rent is high because I’m near the train, and when there is no train, the rent’s going to go down, but the incomes go down. So that’s a negative for me.
Bikash: I always look at a micro-scale, and I always look at it from my own community. My concern now is, I think families aren’t being able to afford neighborhoods like these anymore. They’re being pushed out slowly, economically. Things are getting expensive. They just can’t do it anymore. They have to move somewhere else. A lot of people are moving out to New Hampshire, Connecticut. People that can afford to make that kind of move don’t want to invest in businesses anymore.
What do you want to be different?
Shalay: I wish we could be, you know, like brothers and sisters everywhere. Some people, they give us a hard time, you know. Treat each other nicer. Respect me, I respect you, that’s what it is.
Felix: Living conditions here have always been good. But rent’s just … every day they sell a building and the tenants have to move out. Why? Because the new owners want them out so they can renovate the building and double the rents. Where do these people go? They’ve been here, some of them 15, 20 years. It’s very hard. Very, very hard.
Eugene: There are a lot of people that are coming here, and they are not a problem per say, but they are a problem for people that are being pushed out. But this is America, and that’s part of capitalism. There’s higher demand now for this particular area. And they’re willing to pay more money for this particular real estate. So, they occupy it. And people that can’t pay, that have been here a long time, now they have to move… The people that are coming in, they’re just going with the flow. They were crowded out where they’re from. It’s just a vicious cycle of life.
Bikash: If I was in any landlord position, I would go with the hype. I want to make money too, right? But also, coming from the other side, I wish there would be a bit of a rent stabilization so it’s not climbing 100 percent in a two-year period. We’re talking about apartments that are $1,100 in ‘14, the same place is going for $2,400 in ‘15, ‘16, ‘17. That increase is not healthy. It scares me. We have the hype of the neighborhood, the trains, the busses and everything, but we do have talks of the L train going down. So is that going to be healthy? Are we going to sustain that movement?
In terms of doing business, I always think about that. In the back of my head, I think there could be things like the stabilization of rent so people can live in the neighborhood. I think a little bit a human touch. You know. I see them.
Do you think that today, you could start a business the same way you did back in the day in Ridgewood?
Shalay: Yeah. Honestly, yeah. But back in the day it was not like this. We used to have hard times, maybe 11 years ago. A lot of robbery.
Felix: Nah. Impossible. Impossible to do.
Eguene: I wouldn’t be able to open the same type of business, but I would be able to open a business if I had a business in mind. There are vacancies around, and there is potential.
BiKash: It’d be very tough. This is something we talk about in the Nepalese community all the time… I think the whole concept of gentrification is very hard to explain to the older generation of Nepali people. I always fail to reach them in that sense. I always tell them how it is and how it’s trickling down. How it trickled down from Manhattan, to Bedford, to Williamsburg, to Bushwick, to Ridgewood. It’s going this way into East Brooklyn right now. It’s happening everywhere, so keep your eyes open.
Note: These interviews have been edited for clarity and grammar.